Peak Performance Driving – Lessons from Elite Race Car Drivers

[I know that this blog is supposed to be about running. I also cover the mental game of running and racing. But, as a mental game coach I actually work with many sports/athletes – tennis, golf, bowling, baseball, football, basketball, triathlon, duathlon, runners, race karts, MMA fighting, dancers, skaters, teams and more. This topic is about peak performance and it relates to everyone out there who drives. So, that is why I post it here.]

In most sports not having a peak performance day leads to disappointment. Just look at the list of sports I have worked with. In most cases (other than MMA fighting) if you aren’t “on” that day in competition – you lose. In MMA you might get a bit beat up. But, think about race car drivers. If they aren’t on the top of their game – mind and body – they could die or cause someone else to.

It is in that vein that I think we have lessons to learn on focus, mental toughness and dealing with distractions from race car drivers (Indy Car, Stock Car, NASCAR, Race Kart).

With only inches between car bumpers at 200 mph and cars on all sides of you there is no room for error. Drivers need 100% concentration – even as the race goes on, temperatures fry them in their seats and fatigue sets in. One lapse at that speed under those conditions spells disaster. To do this, drivers have specific performance goals which are broken down into process goals. The process goals can relate to location on the track, where best to pass, how to protect position, getting on the gas early out of a turn, braking early into a turn, hitting specific tangents on corners – are just some examples.

Drivers like any athlete use cues or triggers to keep them 100% focused on what is relevant at the moment. Their focus has to shift rapidly to respond to external conditions such as other cars, track surface condition, car handling and tire wear. All the time, refocusing on handling a vehicle inches from other vehicles at those speeds. A one second lapse is too long.

Let’s introduce some learning theory as it relates to peak performances.  Simple tasks/skills must be learned before complex ones. And only once mastered can other skills be introduced with minimal performance decrement.

Example: You need to master dribbling a basketball before the more complex skills of running and dribbling or dribbling then shooting or dribbling then passing can be introduced.

Sports psychology theory demonstrates that any skill must be “mastered” in practice before expecting strong performances in competition. The stress and demands of competition (i.e. people watching; audience screaming; someone trying to steal the ball from you while you dribble) results in a decrement in performance unless mental techniques (i.e. focusing) are also mastered and employed. Even then it still will not entirely eliminate decrements in performance.

Another peak performance premise is that the more complex the task the more attention it requires. Therefore, more work has to be done to decrease and/or cope with distractions (i.e. refocusing). Distractions take attention away from the task and therefore the task performance suffers (i.e. more errors).

The topic of focusing/refocusing is interesting because the fact is that we are always focused. It’s just that we aren’t focused on the right things at the right time necessarily. Unless we know the “task relevant cues” (those things relevant to that task at hand) merely telling someone to “focus” is useless. You must know what to focus on. And in the process you must identify distractors to eliminate or minimize them and/or to know when you need to cope with them (mental game skill). Race car drivers know what to focus on at any given track or competition.

Neuroscience has found that the brain functions more sequentially and not simultaneously. That means there is no such thing as multitasking really. Or at least the definition must change to: doing several things in rapid succession or back and forth between them (not simultaneously). [There is some very cool experiments in this with people who believe that they are great “multi-taskers”!]

In conjunction with learning research it has been shown that simple well-learned tasks (i.e. mastered) can accommodate other tasks without much decrement in performance. Complex task performance almost always suffers when introducing other tasks – simple or complex. Even trying to perform multiple simple tasks yield more errors than one by itself.

In sports psychology distractions have been shown to greatly effect performance in athletes. Everyone is different so different distractions bother different athletes to varying degrees. This often  plays off of an athletes predisposition to primarily gather information through kinesthetic, auditory, visual modes.

Every distraction creates the necessity to (ignore distraction) refocus on the task relevant aspects (in this case driving). Our abilities to refocus are effected by stress levels, complexity of the skill and mastery of the skill as well as our learned ability to focus/refocus (and not get fixated on one thing – which would be a very bad thing at 200 miles an hour).

And stress, illness and body aches and pains contribute to poor performance. That argument with your boss or spouse or child; that bill collector; that oversleeping your alarm, that cold you caught, your allergies, those aching muscles, etc. all contribute to decreased performance in all areas of life – including athletics.

How does this apply to everyone? If you drive it applies to you as it does with race car drivers. Every distraction or task irrelevant activity decreases performance. Driving is a complex activity even on public streets. A manual transmission; poor visibility in car; seats too high/low; mechanical issues all add complexity by the way. Driving is not mastered for years (if ever in some cases). The following is a partial list of distractors that will decrease performance: playing music, talking to passenger, talking on cell phone, shifting, drinking coffee, eating, applying make-up, animals on your lap, reading the newspaper, reading your iPad, texting, sexting, shaving, primping, looking in vanity mirror, others talking or cavorting in the vehicle, attempting to control children or animals, reading papers/instructions/directions/maps, using GPS system.

And here are a few issues which increase the need for attention: snow, rain, wind, dust, narrow roads, fast speeds, heavy traffic, unfamiliar roads, poor road surfaces, darkness, sun glare, blind corners, unexpected moves from other vehicles. That means all other distractions (that you have control over) have to be eliminated to expect adequate performance!

The fact is that we can learn from elite drivers. They successfully drive the way they do because they master their skills before taking them to the track (road). They minimize distractions. They hone their mental skills to attend to task relevant cues. They train themselves to be able to focus and refocus rapidly. Their attention is 100% on driving and staying safe (ok, while trying to go faster than someone else too).

So, aside from the going faster part, can you say the same about your driving? Do you try to be a peak performer in your driving? Do you minimize distractions? Don’t you have a lot at stake if you aren’t striving to be a peak performing driver?


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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2 Responses to Peak Performance Driving – Lessons from Elite Race Car Drivers

  1. Pingback: Sport Psychology: A Practical Guide « The Potted Plot

  2. Pingback: Sport Psychology: A Practical Guide | Namaste Adventures

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